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Virginia artists share their craft for Artober

Photo of Natalie Prass by Louise Keeton
Photo of Natalie Prass by Louise Keeton

October is for artists! Inktober and Artober challenge artists to create and art lovers to support. Over the years, VPM’s Instagram has had the opportunity to share the stories of Virginia artists of all disciplines. Check out some of their stories below and look for more features highlighting Virginia’s artist @myVPM on Instagram.

Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates and Deejay Gray of the Conciliation Lab
Photo by Louise Keeton
“Every industry is changing drastically - and that includes the arts and culture community. We’re seeing the incredible ways social pressures can create social changes, and we’re joining that conversation with the way we share our stories.
We want to dismantle aspects of the theatre industry that have been holding communities back, find new ways to make it a safe space for all people, and build a truly collaborative environment. As we merge our two organizations, we’re hosting monthly virtual town halls where we talk about radical transparency and how white supremacy finds its way into the entertainment industry and every industry. We discuss ways we can have community accountability so that everyone in our community knows what we are planning and how we organize.
Artists have always been at the core of major changes in our culture and society. Yet again, we’re seeing that around the world. So this is a great opportunity for us to harness that energy and bring it to Richmond theatre. 
We have a common purpose, a common goal, and we have a similar idea of the power that the performing arts have to change lives.” 

Natalie Prass

Photo by Louise Keeton
“We were on tour with Kacey Musgraves for about a month. She was like, “Let's come up with a cool cover before the tour,” and I was like, “How about I Will Survive?” That song is really special to me because I used to sing it in this musical review in middle school, and it is such an important song in our culture. And we were both like, “This is the perfect song for us!” So I would come out during her set, and we would sing a duet of I Will Survive together. It was intense and amazing to see literally everybody in the audience know the chorus and singing along. It felt like such a tight-knit community when we all sang together. And now Gloria Gaynor and I are like buds! My middle school self would have died. I’m still dying. After working two full-time jobs for so long, I understand how quickly this could all go away. So I’m enjoying it while it is happening because the reality is, I might have to have a job again. I can still picture where I was mentally when I was working those jobs with dreams of wanting to just play music. But I honestly wouldn’t trade it for anything because it made me work harder and appreciate where I am now.” 

Art by Alaa

Photo by Art by Alaa
“As a Muslim woman, I've always been intrigued and inspired by the geometrical and sometimes abstract shapes in the Arabic alphabet and religious scriptures. Not only are the words beautiful, but they appear to be as well. When starting my journey as a professional artist, my main focus was Arabic calligraphy. It was the first picture I posted of my art and the first canvas painting I've ever sold. Years later, and although I've delved into other modes of artistic expression, I always come back to my roots. In addition to this, Resettled being a podcast about immigrants settling in the state of Virginia, I felt it was only right to include the language. Virginia has one of the largest Arabic-speaking communities in the United States, mostly being immigrants or first-generation. By including the Arabic, I hope my art for Resettled creates an inclusive environment for Arabic speakers as well as the immigrants in our community. I think the podcast is an amazing and much-needed initiative, especially with how immigrants are portrayed in today's political climate. I wish for my art to be a bridge connecting the two worlds of immigrant listeners and those willing to hear their stories and empower them.” 

Brandee Green of Brown Ballerinas for Chance
Photo by Chris George
“We are dancers. We communicate our feelings and our message through nonverbal expression. My dancers are very vocal about equality, so we decided we should document this moment. We went to the Marcus-David Peter’s Memorial Circle to take pictures together and send the message that Black lives do matter, our voices matter and that they should be heard. The rest is history. We received a huge response from people saying these images are very powerful, and it means a lot to me because my dancers are all so young, but they understand that these pictures mean more than just posing in front of a statue that has graffiti on it because they are experiencing it. I hope when people see these images, it will spark a conversation. We need to start having these tough talks that make us uneasy but will open the lines of communication with all people, no matter your race or social class.” 

Deshia Williams Hotaling

Photo by Louise Keeton
“February 5, 2010, I was in an accident which herniated three disks in my spine and left me with a traumatic brain injury. For a year, I thought I was losing my mind. I started to hear color. The music I would listen to dictated the images and colors I saw. I thought, ‘I should translate these images into light installations.’ I had never considered making art before my accident, but I started manipulating paint with rulers and protractors and somehow, every piece I’ve made has come out almost exactly as I envisioned it. I’ve stopped questioning it and just go with it.” 

Raiquan Thomas

Photo by Raiquan Thomas
“My dad was killed by a state trooper in 2001. When something tragic happens, some people use it as a reason for why they can’t do something, but I turned it around, flipped the switch, and used my experiences to fuel my drive. Now, I talk about what I have overcome through my music.
I performed at a protest in Harrisonburg. My music consists of R&B fused with rap. The audience was mostly a white crowd. I performed my two songs,  ‘Changed Up’ and ‘Put in the Work.’ I tell my white peers that it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist. Now is the time to make a change. One guy chased me down the street with his car after my performance. At first, I was a little startled, but he just wanted to tell me that he loved the music that I performed at the protest.
Since John Lewis’s passing, I feel like it is up to me and a lot of other people to take up the mantle. We can do it. We can bring change. We just can’t live in fear. Every day’s a struggle, every day’s a song”.

Keya Wingfield

Photo by Louise Keeton
“I was working as a product trainer for Circuit City in Bombay when I met my now-husband, David. He was a trainer in Richmond, and we connected over the company’s internal messenger system. I wanted to come here, so we got a fiance visa. We had 90 days to decide whether or not we wanted to get married or I would go back to Bombay. When I arrived in Richmond, I was fired for dating him. They didn’t fire him. They fired me. So he said, “Well since you got fired, I have to marry you now.” 
I was really young, and when you’re that young, you just don’t worry about stuff like work. Having always been a foodie, I knew I wanted to get into the pastry chef arena of work, but I had zero experience. I'd never even seen an oven let alone bake in one. When I moved from Bombay to Richmond, there was an oven in the apartment I was renting with David. I just started playing around with it. Nobody taught me. I’m just a workaholic, so I kept going and working until I had a lot of experience. Making cake pops came from my need to make portion-controlled desserts. I would make them in one corner of our teeny little apartment. I never imagined it would be my business, but each week I got a few extra orders, and it just kinda kept ramping up and ramping up and ramping up all through word of mouth. Even to this day, we have not spent a dollar on advertising. That is the beauty of this town.” 

Jess Burgess

Photo by Louise Keeton
“During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at JMU undergrad, I was in a really bad car accident. Doctors weren't even sure if I'd be able to walk again, much less dance. I was determined to prove them all wrong and find a way to still make dance a part of my life, even after my whole upper body was rebuilt with titanium.
All dancers struggle with injuries, but most don't break all of the bones in their bodies at once. I had to re-evaluate what my life meant as a dancer. I jumped into arts administration immediately after moving to Richmond, knowing that learning the intricacies of arts nonprofit work would somehow allow me to remain relevant in the industry. Everything I've built at Dogtown Dance Theatre is a direct result of my coming to Richmond as an independent and physically disabled dance artist. I wanted to build a space where dancers can create their work and thrive. Because I am creating that environment, I will ALWAYS be a dancer, even when the metal in my body forces me to physically stop dancing. Every day is a gift. And even when days are hard, I've already beaten my hardest day. I am a walking miracle and every day, dance is the thing that keeps me alive.” 

C. Thomas

Photo provided by C. Thomas
“I am a survivor of child abuse and a Black gay man. I began writing at age 13, trying to make sense of these things. I noticed the more I wrote, the more powerful my voice became. I noticed the change in my confidence. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy walking in my shoes. Being abused as a child and coupling with being gay, it was tough. Writing gave me clarity and helped me to cope and to advocate for myself and for others.
I remember one night I recited one of my signature pieces, ‘No apologies. No regrets’ at an open mic. This piece strongly affirms my homosexuality. After I recited this piece, I got a standing ovation and did not expect that because it was mostly a cis-hetero audience. Afterward, this muscular-built Black man approached me to thank me for performing the poem because he has a brother who is gay and experienced years of bullying from family and at school. As he was sharing the details, I could tell he was fighting back tears. Him being vulnerable and connecting with my poem because of his brother was the icing on the cake.
Poetry taught me that I matter. That I can and will exist in a world that tried to convince me otherwise. And as long as I have breath in my body and can continue to write and advocate, I am going to continue to matter and exist!” 

Maggie Hartigan

Photo by Louise Keeton
“When I was little, I had hip dysplasia which means I didn’t have a fully-formed hip pocket. So I had to be in a full-body cast for ten months. My grandpa, John, hated to see me like that but was so proud when I recovered and began Irish dancing. My grandpa immigrated from Ireland and loved to see me dance like he had done as a kid. Every time I saw him he would ask about my dancing. He would even play music on his accordion just so I would perform a few steps. He encouraged me to keep dancing, so I started competing. 16 years later, I competed in the World Irish Dance Championship. I never thought I would get a chance to walk on that stage, much less perform in the same space as all of these incredible dancers. Then I won the Aisling Award! I was called up to the stage with all the champion dancers who had been on the podium for the past 10 years, who I knew and admired, and I was presented with the award. There I was shaking hands with all these big names in Irish dance and standing alongside them. It was truly surreal. If my grandpa were here to see me win this award, I think he would say, ‘I hated seeing you in that full-body cast. Look at you now!’” 

An “Sledge” Liu

Photo by Jason Adkins
“We can’t be fully human without nature. As a designer, I’ve always wanted to address sustainability, to enhance the connection between humans and nature through architectural design. Specifically, paying attention to the whole lifespan of all the materials used for architecture. 
One weekend, I was running past a construction site in downtown Richmond. I saw this beautiful building facade made out of red cedar boards. I knew there must be a construction dumpster somewhere for the cutoffs. I searched everywhere but I couldn’t find it. The second I was ready to give up, I saw the corner of a dumpster poking out of a concrete wall 20 yards away. That’s where I found all these pointy red cedar scraps. I ended up collecting about 2,600 spikes. 
Once I had all the cedar collected, I took a step back from the ‘Helper’ design I had and asked the cedar ‘what do you want, spike?’ The spike metaphorically responded ‘I want to dance, I want to yell, and I want to help.’ The design for the “Helper” started reviving in a way that celebrates the pointy cedar scraps instead of forcing them to adapt. The cedar spikes started dancing.
Community engagement is a big part of the “Helper” project, from the design to the construction. Generous funding from Sally Brown made this project possible, mentors from VCU Arts, Storefront for Community Design, and other communities and support from SMBW, DPR Construction, Richmond Community ToolBank enhanced the quality of the project in many ways. And many many helpers! We work together, support each other, from day to night, to build something beautiful for the community. Me and many helpers feel more positive and hopeful than ever before. We’re all helpers.” 

Josh Autry

Photo by Louise Keeton
“Getting tattooed, from its earliest history, is a rite of passage. Anyone that follows through and receives their first tattoo has conquered an internal goal. I got to do a camping-themed piece for an older lady, above a massive scar she had. She had had an injury, and doctors told her she would never walk again. But she persevered through the pain and all the rehabilitation and can still do what she loves best- camp and enjoy the outdoors. That is my favorite moment. Completing a large project and seeing the client take a look at the finished product. It’s a visual representation of a long commitment, of pain and time and money. That’s the best feeling - getting to the end of the journey together.” 

Raquell Sheree Colby

Photo by Louise Keeton
“My biggest goal in life is to make others smile. Once, I was performing at Crocs Drag Yourself to Brunch for one of their Sunday shows and there was a woman who you could tell wasn’t in the best of spirits. After I noticed her I had decided I wanted her to have an amazing time. So I gave it all, performing like I never have before. By the end of the show, she was on her feet smiling, dancing, and in the best spirits. Afterward, I had a moment to speak with her and she began to tell me how she had cancer and she had decided to not continue with treatment. She said it was the first day that she actually was able to live her life and not constantly think about dying. She was beyond grateful that we had been given the chance to go out and enjoy the world for what is without having sadness in her heart and mind. Her story is just an example of how being a listening ear, an escape from reality, a little glimmer of hope, and just a friend can give back to the community. We are all human and none of us are perfect so I take each and every person for who they are and they take me for me.” 

Bizhan Khodabandeh

Photo by Louise Keeton
“The process of cartooning is more humbling than inspiring. When I started working on my first comic - “The Little Black Fish,” my daughter, Azadeh had just been born. I was working part time as an art teacher at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School. That meant I was working on my comic during my lunches, drawing while rocking Azadeh to sleep, and taking comic pages on vacations. Comics are a lot more work and time than people realize. At the same time, it’s exciting that the medium has this capacity to communicate ideas that aren’t always easily communicated in other mediums. You can visualize a sound. You can create parallel narratives that are actually parallel. It's fun to play with the pace of a story and how it is executed - both through isolated panels and visual real estate, but the reader ultimately has control of time - unlike a film. I think that visual real estate and the way it is utilized is so different from any medium that there are certain approaches to storytelling that only really work in comic form.” 

Arvat McClaine

Photo by Louise Keeton
“While I was driving through rural Virginia to my newly built dream home, I became overwhelmed as thoughts raced through my mind of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the crack epidemic, unfair legal treatment, underfunded schools, low-paying jobs, unjust killing of Black males, and so much more. I realized that as African Americans, we have been in an ongoing cycle of hardship and that I had been caught up in that cycle for most of my life. I had endured physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but that somehow, now, I was okay. Shucks, I was better than okay. I was GREAT! I had managed to move through the pain and through the maze, and I found the light. I found MY light, and I was living the life of my dreams! And guess what? I knew what I had done to get here! So, in an effort to share what I had learned over the years, I wrote When Black Women Speak, the Universe Listens in hope that it could serve as a map for others to find their light too.
I feel blessed to receive messages every day from people telling me how my work has affected their lives. One woman contacted me and said she was touched by my openness and honesty in sharing my story of sexual abuse. She was very tearful and told me she had been raped many years ago on her job by a coworker. Although the incident was reported through proper channels, the perpetrator was able to maintain his job at that company. She said that although she had always loved wearing dresses, from that day forward, she had never worn another dress.
The very next day, she contacted me again and told me it was like a miracle had occurred, and she felt like she had been healed. Shortly thereafter, she resumed wearing dresses and began to embrace her physical beauty once again. Stories like these make my heart sing!” 

Emily Nicolaides

Photo by Louise Keeton
“I’ve always had the impulse to make things. My parents tell stories about finding the downstairs of our house filled with suspended yarn tied to chair legs, doorknobs, banisters, and bookshelves while I crawled over and under and through my giant web. I didn’t even know that fiber could be fine art until my senior capstone class in college when I began learning about the art history of women. It was an emotional time when I began realizing that textile art was in my blood through my grandmothers, both avid knitters, crocheters, and needlepoint artists. These women were my first fiber art teachers. It was during that time in college that I knew I wanted to be an artist, to honor all the textile artists, who were never considered fine artists, that came before me.”